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  Americas Regional Preparatory Conference
To the World Conference Against Racism
Item 2 on the Agenda, Victims of Racial Discrimination
Oral Intervention by Mr. Lenny Foster, International Indian Treaty Council

On behalf of the International Indian Treaty Council I would like to thank you for the opportunity to make this important statement to this forum.  It is indeed a privilege and an honor to be part of the United Nations conference against Racism, Xenophobia, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance regional meeting in Santiago Chile.  

My name is Lenny Foster, a Board member of the International Indian Treaty Council and member of the Navajo Nation, which is the largest Indian Nation in North America. I am also the National Coordinator of the National Native American Prisoners Rights Coalition, and a spiritual advisor and Director of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project. I visit and represent over 1,500 Native American clients incarcerated in 96 state and federal prisons.  My clients are victims of extreme racism and racial discrimination in the Untied States criminal justice system.

The paramount concern we have is the denial of religious, cultural and spiritual practices in the prison system. This racist practice has been identified a pressing criminal justice, rehabilitation and human rights concern of paramount importance to the Indian Nations in the United States. The ability to practice traditional native religions is paramount to the cultural survival of Native Peoples.

For years the Native Americans have been denied their right to practice their traditional native religious and spiritual beliefs in state prisons, especially in states such as Texas.   Presently, Indian Country is seeking increased legal protection for the free exercise of religion because it is the essential component to the correctional rehabilitation of Native offenders and to the cultural/spiritual well being of the individual, so he can return to his indigenous community as a productive person.

Our people are incarcerated in highly disproportionate numbers to their numbers in the general population.

The Native spiritual practices are very important for the spiritual healing of Native persons and they have proven to be very successful for the rehabilitation of the mind, body and spirit.  A recovery movement across Indian Country has been developing for the past thirty years and as a result of a spiritual healing, has evolved especially among the Native prisoners in the prison system. Until 1978 countless ceremonial practices were banned and outlawed by the United States government, religious structures and articles were destroyed in an effort to assimilate the Native Peoples into the dominant societies.

The United States government displaced our ancestors physically and spiritually. During that displacement, many of the traditional ways of spiritual and religious practices were repressed. The dominant society sought to destroy our culture. However a spiritual and cultural revival has developed in the past thirty years in which the Native Americans have sought to regain the roots of our culture. This spiritual healing has seen Peoples of all Tribal backgrounds embracing the roots of our spiritual and religious practices.  The Sweat lodge, an ancient old ceremonial practice of cleansing and purifying the mind and spirit, has been a very positive and successful therapy for our people in prison.

Long hair, worn in a traditional fashion for cultural and spiritual beliefs is also very important.    The California state prison system has implemented a haircutting policy for Native Americans and this racist practice is very detrimental to the spiritual and psychological well-being.  Equal access and use of sacred herbs and items such as cedar, sage, the Pipe, tobacco, gourd, drum and sweet grass are very important to the traditional ceremonies. The outright denial of religious practices is tantamount to a denial of an opportunity for recovery and spiritual healing.

Enforcement and compliance with existing laws, policies and statutes have not been uniform, and lawsuits filed to enforce existing laws have resulted in adverse decisions. Freedom of religion Native Americans depends on the whim of individual prison officials. Ignorance and lack of awareness should not serve as a justification for systematically and arbitrarily denying religious rights and then justifying these denials on the basis of security concerns.  Hypothetical situations concerns for  "security" should not be conjured and passed as fact.   These racist attitudes and racial discrimination should not be the basis for the arbitrarily and capriciously denying these basic human rights.

Traditional religious practice helps imprisoned Native Americans. The traditional religious and spiritual practices such as the cleansing and purification ceremonies (sweat lodges) have proven to be very successful in positive changes in attitude, in behavior and personality. The sweat lodge teaches respect, responsibility and sobriety.  The Pipe Ceremonies and Talking Circles and individual spiritual counseling have also proven very effective toward spiritual healing, renewed dignity and cultural pride.  Having a traditional spiritual leader to lead instruction and teach the ceremonies is very important and has also been a successful approach.  All of these therapies have to be done on a consistent basis.

We also have 44 Native American inmates on Death Row and condemned to death, to be executed in the U.S. prisons. These Native Americans need access and the opportunity to be allowed to use the ancient ceremonial practices such as the sweat lodge and the pipe, to pray and prepare to meet the Maker.  It is very important for a condemned person to be allowed to the use of the sweat lodge as a last rite request, yet various prison officials in California and Missouri deny such requests.  This is racism in its most extreme form and must be condemned.  The Death Penalty itself is inhumane, racist, unethical and immoral.  The Death Penalty must be abolished in the Untied States.

Racism, racial discrimination and related intolerances must be stopped. We invite the states at this Preparatory Conference to the World Conference Against Racism to study and help stop these practices. We recommend that findings of these violations of fundamental human rights be presented in an appropriate forum to seek compliance with the elimination of religious intolerance.

Thank You.  

Free Leonard Peltier!

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